Public Defender, facing staffing and funding crisis, awaits Wyoming Supreme Court review - Casper, WY Oil City News
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Public Defender, facing staffing and funding crisis, awaits Wyoming Supreme Court review

A judge listens to initial appearances at Natrona County Circuit Court on Friday afternoon at the Townsend Justice Center in Casper. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — The Wyoming Supreme Court will decide whether to accept or deny State Public Defender Diane Lonazo’s petition to review a contempt order sometime between June 14 and July 9.

The Campbell County Circuit Court found Lozano and the State Public Defender’s Office in contempt for refusing to assign a public defender to two misdemeanor cases.

In Natrona County, the State Public Defenders Office said that public defenders would stop being assigned to misdemeanor cases effective June 1.

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Oil City has spoken with several attorneys in Natrona County who’ve said that staffing and budget issues have led to the difficulties for the State Public Defenders Office.

Lozano and her office had requested funding to hire 18 new positions in 2018. Former Governor Matt Mead recommended funding for eight of those positions.

The State Public Defenders Office asked for $4,534,362 atop their standard budget. Mead recommended $2,117,808 and the Wyoming Legislature approved this amount during the 2018 budget session.

The request asked for funding for nine legal support specialists in multiple counties and to hire nine new public defenders. They received funding for four legal support specialists and four new public defenders.

The May 23 Campbell County Circuit Court report of the contempt hearings explains some of Lozano’s reasoning for refusing to take on the misdemeanor cases.

The court received a letter from Lozano on May 1 which said that the State Public Defenders Office was “not available to take misdemeanor cases until our staffing numbers reach the necessary levels.”

She added that in Campbell County, “4.5 attorneys are handling the workload of 7.5 attorneys.”

“The Public Defender has determined that when a workload exceeds 100% within a field office, that the field office will no longer be able to accept new cases,” Lozano’s letter continues. “

“This would then require the courts to either reduce the number of public defender appointments, to allow defendants to represent themselves or to appoint private counsel.”

In their report, the court italicized the phrase “this would then require the courts.”

The contempt order states that the court understands the staffing difficulties facing the State Public Defenders Office, but does not agree that Lozano can simply state that public defenders won’t take on misdemeanor cases.

“This Court finds the troubled status of the Office of the State Public Defender lamentable,” the report states, pointing to high public defender case loads, “compensation disparities” and other factors.

However, the court stated that difficulties needed to be addressed through “judicial process and not willful disobedience.”

Lozano said in the letter that her office is prepared to take on misdemeanor cases again once their staffing issues are resolved.

“Once my office is fully staffed, we will again accept misdemeanor cases,” she wrote.

Lozano’s petition to the Supreme Court asks them to review the case and overrule the contempt order. The Wyoming Supreme Court clerk explained that the petition for writ of review (Certiorari) is different than a standard appeal.

A standard appeals process would first go to the Campbell County District Court. Under the petition for writ of review process, the Supreme Court can directly decide whether to review the case.

Should they accept the petition, the clerk’s office told Oil City that both sides would have the opportunity to come before the court and plead their case before the Supreme Court decides whether to uphold the contempt order.

The Joint Judiciary Committee of the Wyoming Legislature is meeting in Gillette on Tuesday. Casper Representative Art Washut sits on that committee and told Oil City that the State Public Defenders Office is on the agenda for that meeting.